First-hand accounts of Australian offshore and onshore detention

By Christopher Ringrose
Ali Bakhtiarvandi. Photo by Tom Campbell

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention
Edited by Michael Green and André Dao
Allen and Unwin

Stories from Detention
Exhibition at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne

they cannot take the sky

The book They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention and its related exhibition are extremely important. One would say “important and powerful”, but while the narratives that they unfold have undeniable affective power, their potential as interventions in Australian refugee practice and policies remains to be seen.

This Australian attempt to locate refugees in the social imaginary has parallels elsewhere in the world, notably in Refugee Tales, edited in London by David Herd and Anna Pincus, in which refugees’ own stories reveal the nastiness of a British legal system that denies them humanity and rights.

The mandate of They Cannot Take the Sky is simple in theory: to provide “a record of Australia’s mandatory immigration detention system from the point of view of the people it incarcerates”. Thus the book comprises first-hand accounts from 35 people of different ages and backgrounds, born in nine different countries, who arrived in Australia between 1997 and 2013. The stories cover offshore and onshore detention, and those who tell them are at various stages of resettlement. Many of them are still in detention.

In practice, these autobiographical accounts attest to the courage and skill of those who tell them, in the face of official secrecy and potential reprisals. Added to that, we have the admirable work of the interviewers and writers who transcribed and interpreted them. This is a defiant response to state censorship of information about detention centres, and to what the Australian novelist Peter Carey has called, in his book Amnesia, “a lie of Goebbelsesque immensity” created by Australian politics to support its refugee policy.

The testimonies document the day-to-day indignities of living in detention. Behrouz Boochani, three years in detention, gives an impressionistic but detailed account of his contact with a resident of Manus Island, his own writing, island birdsong, relentless queuing, daily humiliations, and his refusal to use the word “camp” as opposed to “prison” to describe his environment.

For this piece of paper I spent nine years of my life. Four and a half years in the detention centre, then carrying a huge bill on my shoulders, and now nine days ago I lost my sister.

Hani Abdile’s account of her 11 months in the Christmas Island Detention Centre, and then her time in Australia on a Bridging visa, is vivid, full of life and humour, as well as anger at the unnecessarily harsh way she was treated by officials. She also honours those who treated her well, including the Serco officer who had welcomed her to Christmas Island, and whom she later made a point of visiting in Melbourne.

Benjamin writes of his struggle to remain strong and motivated during his time on Nauru from age 18 to 22. He is still there.

Aran Mylvaganam’s story recounts the Sri Lankan navy’s attacks on his village, and the subsequent journey that brought him to a desolating existence at Villawood Detention Centre and then a life in Dandenong, Melbourne. It is an account of success and depression, survival and scarring, intertwined with the tragic story of 29-year-old Leo Seemanpillai, the Tamil asylum seeker who, in fear of getting deported, self-immolated on May 31, 2014 in Geelong. Aran, who is now the spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council, had to call Leo’s father in Tamil Nadu to convey the news that his son was dead.

Ali Bakhtiarvandi, now an Australian citizen, describes his hunger strike in Port Hedland, receiving a bill for $227,049.10 from The Department of Immigration for the time he spent in detention (he paid $7,000-8,000 of it before it was rescinded), and his decision to wear a black shirt to his citizenship ceremony. He explains: “For this piece of paper I spent nine years of my life. Four and a half years in the detention centre, then carrying a huge bill on my shoulders, and now nine days ago I lost my sister”.

They Cannot Take the Sky is not just a catalogue of horrors. The contributors give accounts of their own suffering at the hands of the system, and bear witness to that of others. But they also express a sense of gratitude where it is due, and record acts of kindness and proactive assistance that they will never forget. They also furnish clear-sighted and intelligent analyses of the system that controlled them and which they resisted.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a 24-year-old man from Darfur, Sudan, for example, is politically astute in his series of short voicemail messages, and reveals a novelist’s eye for detail. More recently, his podcasts The Messenger have gained him some celebrity, although he remains in detention on Manus Island. On a memorable night a few weeks ago at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, he appeared via Skype as part of a panel discussion that also included Michael Green, one of the editors of this volume.

I came to realise that, “Hey, what my family did was not illegal. We are not queue-jumpers because there’s no such thing as a queue in regards to being a refugee”.

It is moving to read grounded political analyses. The writers often come, independently, to the same conclusions as the excellent document from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Myths, Facts and Solutions, such as that delivered by the impressive Jamila Jafari: “I came to realise that, ‘Hey, what my family did was not illegal. We are not queue-jumpers because there’s no such thing as a queue in regards to being a refugee’”, or Munjed Al Muderis’s piercing accounts of physical and mental torture at Curtin Detention Centre, which he describes as “hell on earth”. Al Muderis also remembers the humanity of the naval officer who lent him a phone, saying: “Dial the number and tell your mum that you’re safe”. His brief comment on this episode, “it was then that I saw the Australian spirit for real”, stands out like a beacon in the book.

The related exhibition at the Melbourne Immigration Museum, Stories from Detention, is aware of the strengths of the book, and capitalises on them. Large-scale photographs of the contributors and welcoming, waving video figures emphasize the themes of welcome (and by implication rejection), humanity and individuality.

One room is devoted to accounts of torture and mistreatment, with a stark mock-up of detention accommodation. Elsewhere, video booths with benches allow visitors to watch and listen to testimonies from those who are, or have been, in detention. Some of these are pieces to camera by the writers themselves; others are eloquently delivered by other readers.

Those who have read They Cannot Take the Sky will be familiar with some of the stories, but not all, and will experience them afresh in this spoken form, which is of course often close to the way they were originally delivered. Photographs and background information are found inside each video booth. The booths are semi-open, and there is a degree of background noise as the voices mingle overhead in the space. This is not altogether a distraction; in fact it adds to the sense of related but distinct testimonies, in a chorus of commentary and self-presentation.

It is not always a comfortable experience. The accusations directed at Australian polity and the call for public responsibility by some of the speakers are confronting. There are also gripping and harrowing brief narratives, and a sense of human warmth and poise. Abdile gives a splendid video performance of one of her poems, which is a fitting contribution to this exhibition devoted to resilience, potential and the need for continued political activism.